TOKYO — South Korea welcomed President Trump’s announcement that he will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27, expressing hope Wednesday that the pair can build off their first meeting to make “more specific and substantial progress” this time.
The presidential Blue House also noted the choice of Vietnam as a venue carries important symbolism, signaling that friendship with the United States is possible after a long period of hostility.
“Vietnam and the United States used to point guns and knives at each other but have now become friends,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-keum told a news conference Wednesday. “We expect Vietnam to be a perfectly suitable backdrop to a new history to be written between North Korea and the United States.”
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Trump said his administration was continuing its “historic push for peace in North Korea.” He noted the return of several American citizens who had been imprisoned by the North Korean regime and Pyongyang’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. Chairman Kim and I will meet again on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.”
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, called the president’s rhetoric about preventing a war “somewhat exaggerated” but acknowledged Trump’s role in the detente with North Korea.
“The possibility of North Korea waging an actual war had been low even before Trump took office,” he said. “Still, the level of provocation from North Korea had been constantly elevating with nuclear tests and missile launches until last year. It is worth noting that Trump’s decision to talk directly to Kim Jong Un has marked a dramatic turn in North Korea’s attitude.”
Opinion about Trump’s outreach to Kim Jong Un divides North Korea experts.
Some give him credit for opening a dialogue with Kim after years of drift under his predecessor, Barack Obama. But some also criticize him for failing to elicit any concrete pledges about denuclearization when he met the North Korean leader in Singapore last June.
Last month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Trump and Kim need to move from “abstract” talk to “concrete” action the next time they meet, to speed up their peace process and bridge mistrust.
On Wednesday, the Blue House statement echoed his sentiment.
“The two leaders have already taken the first step toward shaking off the past 70 years of hostility in Singapore,” spokesman Kim Eui-keum said. “We look forward to a more specific and substantial step of progress in Vietnam.”
Moon has invested his personal prestige in the North Korean peace process and is keen to cement much closer economic relations with the North, but he has been stymied by the slower pace of rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.
CNN reported this week that the plan was for the summit to take place in the Vietnamese coastal city of Danang, but it later said Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, was also an option.
U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun is due to meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Hyok Chol in Pyongyang on Wednesday, as he attempts to push forward preparations for the summit and advance a plan to reinvigorate talks about denuclearization.
Last Thursday, Biegun set out for the first time in a speech at Stanford University how he hopes to move the process forward, taking what several experts described as a more flexible and realistic approach than the administration has adopted thus far.
In particular, he spelled out the Trump administration’s vision of a fundamentally transformed relationship with North Korea, including significant economic engagement, if the country gives up its nuclear arsenal.
But not everyone is convinced the summit will yield meaningful progress.
Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who now teaches at Victoria University in New Zealand, called it “reality-show entertainment” that is distracting from the real business of diplomacy, with talks between the two sides dominated by summit planning rather than real substance.
“I’m a critic of the summit until it’s connected to a diplomatic process that freezes and rolls back North Korean nukes,” he said. “It could happen, but the past eight months give me no confidence.”
One media report suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping might also travel to Vietnam, and South Korean reporters asked the Blue House on Wednesday if Moon might also attend. But spokesman Kim Eui-keum played down the chances.
“It is contingent on progress of talks between North Korea and the United States, but the possibility is low,” he said.
The North Koreans have been asking for a declaration formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, an appeal which has won support from the South Korean government and appears to be something to which Trump is prepared to agree.
“President Trump is ready to end this war,” Biegun said last week. “It is over. It is done.”
The Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
But a declaration to end the war would have to be signed by the leaders of the main protagonists — both Koreas, China and the United States — and experts say time is very short to coordinate such a step by the end of this month.
Japan said it hopes that the agreement Trump and Kim reached last June, including the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, would be implemented “thoroughly and swiftly,” while Australia said it was important to enforce international sanctions against North Korea to show Pyongyang that “the world is equally committed” to its denuclearization.
“It’s not an overnight process. It is a very significant process,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It will require extensive negotiations with the regime.”